Child Care in Canada: The Child Care 2020 Conference

childcare-logoLast week I had the opportunity to attend the Child Care 2020 Conference in Winnipeg.  The conference is the fourth national child care conference in Canada’s history and the first in a decade.  Presenters from around the country and overseas talked about issues ranging from child care funding policy to play-based education to effective advocacy.  And, naturally, a former hockey star was a keynote speaker (former Minister of Social Development Ken Dryden, who spoke passionately about the role of child care at the federal level).

For me, the conference illuminated contrasts in attitudes and policy approaches towards child care in the U.S. and Canada.  Canada’s social welfare system tends to be more progressive than that in the U.S., so proposing a truly universal and accessible child care system seems to have more political traction in Canada compared to the US.  However, Canada still lags behind the states in terms of proportion of GDP allocated to child care, at just .3%.  (The OECD recommendation is 1% of GDP).

While Canadian policy recognizes the importance of child care quality, the integration of structured ways of measuring quality, such as quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) lags that of the U.S.  Toronto’s system seems most similar to the developing QRIS systems in the states, though no Canadian province or city has fully integrated a tiered subsidy policy, in which providers or parents receive different subsidy levels based on measured quality.

In terms of Canada’s social investment in child care, Quebec leads the way, with a $7 a day child care policy that was instated in 1997, along with a host of other European-style social reforms.  While the program has had economic benefits related to increased rates of women in the labor force, quality has suffered with the rapid expansion of child care slots in the country, an effect which may be largely do to the difference in quality between nonprofit and for-profit centers.

One of the most exciting developments I heard about at the conference was the $10-a-day child care campaign in British Columbia.  This campaign implicitly addresses quality by providing enough funding for highly qualified professionals, among other quality elements.

The subsidy structure of both Quebec’s and B.C.’s programs reveal an interesting philosophical difference between Canadian and U.S. approaches to child care subsidy.  In the U.S., subsidies are typically tied to individual children, reflecting our individualistic approach to social services — parents are seen as consumers who take advantage of the best options in a child care market.  In Canada, however, child care advocates see  quality early education as primarily a state responsibility, so funding proposals tend to direct money to providers rather than to parents themselves.  This is reflected in the way in which subsidy amounts are framed in the Quebec and proposed B.C. programs:  rather than using the language of parent savings or reimbursement amounts, as in the U.S., subsidies are framed in terms of the remainder that parents will pay after the bulk of costs have been covered by the state.

I heard some lamenting at the conference that while many ideas (good and bad) tend to creep north of the border from the States into Canada, the reverse happens less often.  It seems to me that there is much to be gained by greater sharing of research and advocacy ideas in both directions.

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